NO STRAIGHT ANSWERS • HEAD COACH XN'S BLOG

​Head Coach and Next Level founder Christian Matyi – a/k/a "XN" – gives notoriously complex answers to even the most simple of questions.  He'd always rather you "think more" than "know more." So you can only imagine what'll happen when there wasn't any question even asked . . . 

You never know what his many years of coaching will inspire him to claim as "relevant" to your progress. 

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Bodybuilding's noblest skills defined in one misleading image

Unless you've been living under a rock, you are aware that many "before & after" images you see of people's "incredible transformations" are faked.  They are often taken within days or even hours of one another, with manipulations in lighting, skin tone (tanning), a little grooming, a lot of flexing and occasionally even a touch of photoshop photo editing.  Yes, it's easy to "fake" a before and after shot.  And the best way to prove that it's easy to fake is to show how it's done.

There are literally 5 seconds of time elapsed between these "before and after" pictures of Coach Stan Dutton (a buddy of ours).  Stan merely flexes to create an aesthetic of muscle mass and leanness – which is exactly what bodybuilders "do" to create theirs.  
The lesson is clear: good, competitive bodybuilding is not about ultimate size but about skills of presentation.
Photo courtesy of Stan's Instagram feed.  Contact Stan Dutton at TFW Boston.

In fact, showing how to fake a before & after has become a new micro trend that has popped up for trainers trying to market their skills.  Creating "intentionally faked" before and images of their own bodies is a a way for trainers to try to send warning to potential clients; "do not trust all you see in the marketing of promises and products!"  Showing how easy it is to fake these images allows a trainer to show he or she is savvy, and thus "ups their cred."  It is a useful ploy to win clients and educate people interested in changing their bodies.  

But while the intention behind the creation of these images is a self-righteous attempt to jab at the fitness industry's penchant for falsehoods, they inadvertently show something that is perhaps far more compelling.  These faked before and after shots actually illustrate the basic principle behind the sport of competitive bodybuilding.  Not the "fake" part, but the ability to dramatically change how one looks instantaneously.  It is not just a trick; the ability to create imagery and aesthetics using your body "as it is" is a complex skill.  And that skill is the foundation of the sport of bodybuilding.

It is not just a trick; the ability to create imagery and aesthetics using your body “as it is” is a complex skill. And that skill is the foundation of the sport of bodybuilding.

Contrary to what many think, while casual bodybuilding is often just about getting big and lean for one's vanity, the competitive sport is not at all about that pursuit.  Getting thicker muscle and less fat is only a personal quest.  Bodybuilding is actually a sport of skill. The problem is that the skill seems, at first, a ridiculous one: who is the best at making themselves look a certain way using only what they have right now?  Relying only on what you have right now, can you look big?  Using only what you have right now, can you look lean?  

Via careful control of your body (in a word: posing), you can make yourself appear dramatically different than you look while "just standing around."  And like all skills, some people are better, some are worse.  Thus, it can be made competitive.  Now, obviously, if you already are relatively lean and muscular, this job becomes easier; a bigger, leaner bodybuilder requires less skill in this competitive sport because they are closer to looking that way while they are, in fact, "just standing around."  So while trying to get your body big and lean is an edge for winning in bodybuilding, it is meanwhile a bad representation of the real skills involved – and those skills are far more dignified than one might suspect..  

Now few would guess that bodybuilding is a "skill sport."  It is not a beauty pageant, as it's detractors often want to decry, where your just "show off work that your already did."  The work is happening in real time, and moves at a subtle yet incredibly deliberate pace.  It is one part refined and careful movement (the posing), and another part having a clear idea of your body without a bunch of self-judgmental clutter.

Most of us only know our body as a list of criticisms; a compendium of “parts we like” and “parts we dislike.” Those opinions are very different from a true inventory of our physical properties.

Being able to know your body in it's fullest right now is unto itself tricky.  Most of us only know our body as a list of criticisms; a compendium of "parts we like" and "parts we dislike."  Those opinions are very different from a true inventory of our physical properties.  In essence, a "skilled" bodybuilder has a healthier perspective on himself than his less skilled "show-off" counterparts.  A skilled bodybuilder does not wear down his psyche with criticism, self-doubt and demand; he merely holds the facts of his body's properties in his mind.  It's a simple list that describes the "equipment" he must use to get a job done.  

It's funny to imagine that the best bodybuilding "skills" rely on a bodybuilder having a far less ego-driven way to consider his body than what we would guess.  Because of the incorrect idea that bodybuilding is a "pageant," people thus assume that the participants are madly egotistical.  And many are; the unskilled bodybuilder is often just a bundle of insecurities and aggression.  They have foregone relying on skill because they think their body is "just shaped that way."  Many bodybuilders go into competition with this attitude and are thus wildly unprepared; they are just banking on a hope that their physique's appearance is "good enough" to win.  And with that mindset, these less skilled athletes – in spite of their remarkable "standing around" bodies – often fall by the wayside.  Those that don't master the skills either  ascend in competitive rank far too slowly – or not at all – or else get too frustrated.  They say the frustration is "the sport's fault"; that the sport is unfair, too biased, etc., etc.  And while they can often substantiate their claims with facts, the truth to their discouragement is actually more often that their own ego is not being validated.

These unskilled yet remarkably well-built examples of discouragement are the ones that often get promoted as what defines bodybuilding competitors.  Meanwhile, those competitors who are not so ego driven and capable of mastering the subtlety of the presentation skills – including keeping the calm mindset – are often overlooked.  And with a giant industry interested in capitalizing on people's frustrations, the stories of frustrations are far more often mobilized than are those of remarkable talent. 

We are all encouraged to believe we can create beauty using just what we have right now. That is a powerful message.

Which is why those faked before and after shots actually do more to promote a skill than they do to promote a fallacy.  These "regular people" who create these shots are actually doing what competitive bodybuilders do.  In fact, they are showing how "anyone" can compete in bodybuilding because – like all sports – it is actually about a skill, not about having the best equipment.  They are, in two shots, showing what competitors do, and showing how accessible the sport really is.

And they are encouraging us all to let go of our ego-driven judgements about ourselves; our criticisms and frustrations.  And not just let go of them; replace the space those self-critiques took in our brains with skills of purpose and dignity.  Through the faked before & after image we are all encouraged to believe we can create beauty using just what we have right now. That is a powerful message.

And that message is the root of competitive bodybuilding skill.

It is easy to use the fake before & after image to show the fitness industry's insidious agendas.  But it is perhaps more inspiring to see the other evidence these images offer; evidence of positivity, less egotism and a kinder, more rational opinion of one's body.  

The kind of opinion a skilled bodybuilder holds.  Both before and after you see him.

Bodybuilding + CrossFit + StrongMan + Functional = 1938

He didn't have what we have, but he got what we want.  

The image is one of those vintage magazine shots, where the muscular dude on the cover is posing like a Greek statue.  It was shown to me by an athlete, and I was captivated.

"This," I thought. "This explains what The Next Level means when we say there's no difference between solid bodybuilding and solid strength lifting."

These images always captivate us when we come across them.  Glimpsing the past is always fascinating.  But when it comes to the retro muscle magazine images, there is another message being declared that we do not see so much in our own media any more. And this message holds an important lesson for you.

We often arrogantly consider our current standards for what constitutes "muscular body" as somehow more advanced than what came before us.  Yet when we look art this dude from 1938, he looks very much like many of the guys we might see pursuing bodybuilding.  Or trying to accomplish a powerful lift.  Or eagerly diving into CrossFit.  The thing that makes his body so compelling is not that it is better or worse than our current standards; it is that it is so much the same as our standards.

Now, this guy comes from 1938.  He didn't have supplements. He didn't have gyms and training facilities and CrossFit boxes and yoga studios.  Heck – this dude didn't even have our precious (hear the sarcasm?) fitness industry.  He only had what all humans have: the resourcefulness of his mind and the focus allowed by his interests.  No doubt he had mentors and help, but he was mostly improvisationally working; his amazing physique relied more on his observational discerning than his aggressive demand for a fix.

[An] amazing physique relies more on observational discerning than [an] aggressive demand for a fix.

Now, I hate that I don't have a name for the guy.  However, he is here standing emblematic of all the physique athletes of this era; more specifically, emblematic of physique development in a non-industrialized format.  He didn't have mags, internets, powders and chrome machines to make this work.  He had food and effort and intelligence.

This perhaps proves a point that many find radical, but that you must consider seriously.  The body's aesthetics can be recreated without the supplements, brand names (sorry CrossFit – you're a brand first, a program second) the D-list, self-celebrating celebrities (read: Zyzz), the science wonks that "tell you exactly how it is scientifically, without hype" (yet isn't that statement the definition of hype?) – without any of the million trappings of the industry.  His body was not reliant on anything but his own resourcefulness, open-mindedness and drive for a remarkable goal.

The fitness industry is completely unnecessary for your success. It is incidental. It is an add-on.

In short: the fitness industry is completely unnecessary for your success.  It is incidental.  It is an add-on.  It's solutions are always ever ad hoc to what you can do of your own patience and peer-engagement.

In fact, the fitness industry has complicated the matters, hasn't it?  It has created all these points of focuses, and calls them all "solutions."  And each focus is refined more and more specific to an end; each point of focus is separated further and further apart from the bigger landscape from which is was derived.  In the name of "clarifying," it only adds confusion.  By trying to convince you of a specific direction – a supplementation program, a training regiment, a scientific application – it only makes us more aware of the clutter.

You are an integrating machine, yet the fitness industry is a separating machine.

Now I am not sitting here saying "it was better in them good ol' days."  But what I am suggesting is you look at how the fitness industry creates separation between practices.  Yet, when you choose your practices, you need to integrate them.  Diet with training; rest with work; healing with attack; you have to choose your plans and make them work together, not as discrete, separate entities.  You are an integrating machine, yet the fitness industry is a separating machine.  You see how the two are at odds in their end-goals?

 Strong men who bodybuilder are better strength athletes. Bodybuilders who practice competitive strength building are better bodybuilders. They are the same because they were never different.

Strong men who bodybuilder are better strength athletes.
Bodybuilders who practice competitive strength building are better bodybuilders.
They are the same because they were never different.

And this is seen so often with the obnoxiously harsh delineation between the pursuit of strength excellence and and pursuit of aesthetic excellence.  They have been separated far too severely by the industry – so effectively separated, in fact, that many people just believe them to be fundamentally different.  They are not.  They are one and the same.  Our buddy from 1938 knew that.  In fact, he may not have even thought that the two pursuits – aesthetics and strength – needed to be separated at all. The likelihood was that he saw it as one, integrated process, which is a perception we can barely wrap our brains around today.  The two sides have been so divorced from one another by the machinations of a force seeking to industrialize profits that we are confused when we try to see them as the whole that they were prior to the industry.

Oh, quick side note: the industry is only about a hundred years old, yet the pursuit of physique excellence is at least 3500 years old – give or take a millennium.  That means the beliefs that came out of the fitness industry are not only new, but gravely misleading.  If man has been kicking ass for almost four millennia, don't tell me that bumper plates and neon-green powder is what we've all been missing all this time.  Man has been achieving aesthetic excellence and exceptional performance as one single agenda.  The only thing that cleaved that agenda into various parts was a greedy industry that figured out it could sell more if it divided and conquered.

 All around athlete.  All around physique success.  

All around athlete.  All around physique success.  

But the data supports (adopt 3500 years of data) that the vast majority of physical achievements that bear any mark of superhuman or legendary had nothing to do with the fitness industry, and were not achieved through the separation of pursuits.  

So when did you get so much smarter than the millions of awesome warriors before you who got way better results on far less?  When did you realize that separating the pursuits into discrete practices of "power," "strength," aesthetics" and "performance" would yield the best results?  Such separations are a distraction, friend.  They will not avail you the results you want until they are combined in an integrated system.

This is actually a founding principle in The Next Level; that our teams are not just pursuing bodybuilding versus just pursuing strength sports, but rather seek to pursue physique sports as an integrated whole.  You are not only inadvertently pursuing one when you pursue the other, you are made more effective in the pursuit of that one if you conscientiously integrate the pursuit of the other.

You are not only inadvertently pursuing one {capacity] when you pursue the other, you are made more effective in the pursuit of that one if you conscientiously integrate the pursuit of the other.

This is not to disparage specialization.  Of course the demands of sports require an athlete to specialize in certain capacities. But specialization is not a "long game"; specialization is a medium- or short-range practice.  

Think of it this way: just because a violinist learns a complicated tune does not mean she stops playing other kinds of music.  And to play other kinds of music, she must continually engage a broad form of practice; practice that is general and allows her versatility with her instrument.  Who learns an instrument just to play one song?  You do not specialize in a song just to then never learn to play others. In fact, if she learned a pieces of classical music, then took a break and played a cheerful reel, she may be more agile when she returns to that original classical piece.  The pursuit of all the forms makes her better when she has to specialize in just on in a concert setting.

 No one masters the violin to play just one tune.  (Violinist Leila Josefowicz pictured.)

No one masters the violin to play just one tune. (Violinist Leila Josefowicz pictured.)

Your body is the same way.  Specializing in an area can help you in other areas.  Dieting strategies and their effects on the body's hormones can influence strength gains.  Unique lifting forms can help evolve movement capabilities for bodybuilding contest posing.  Heavy, powerful lifts can help develop the speed and performance used in functional training competition.  They are all different tunes, but the goal is not to master only one song, but rather to be a master musician.

Perhaps the musical analogy can be pushed further by comparing your work to a symphony.  While you may like the sound of clarinet the most, there is no doubt that a symphony is more versatile than just the clarinet alone.  The whole symphony can create more sounds, play more songs, and undulate between intense and soft better than just one of it's instruments could do alone.  So it is arguable to say that a clarinet-player who is also capable of conducting a symphony would be a better clarinet player.  

 Don't just play your favorite instrument.  Become the conductor of the entire symphony.

Don't just play your favorite instrument.  Become the conductor of the entire symphony.

You want to be a conductor, my friend.  You want to direct all the instruments and all their power in one triumphant symphony.  What songs you specialize in is up to you, but no one masters a symphony to play just one song.

And no physique athlete can be said to have truly mastered their body if they stubbornly stick to just one pursuit.  Specialization in a pursuit is not the same as isolation from any others.  That is what the industry wants you to believe; that to specialize means to separate your thinking from other pursuits absolutely.  Then, as you get less and less gains from your pursuits that you have mastered, they will "sell" you more of their precious "solutions."

The dude from 1938 never separated his pursuits.  And that body is pretty impressive – even by today's standards.  Now, he had it lucky because he didn't have an industry with an agenda preying on his passions.  We do.  And that industry's messages – both overt and subtle – can undo our best efforts.

Specialization in a pursuit is not the same as isolation from any others.

Specialize from time to time, but make sure you are not neglecting other pursuits for the sake of one.  Explore the options and integrate them.  They are not separate by design; they are separated via marketing.  Put them back together.

Let's return to 1938.  It was a far more captivating time.

"The best bodybuilders are the best healers."

I have said this time and time again.  If you want to get stronger, faster, bigger and better looking, you need to spend more time understanding how to repair yourself, and less time worrying about how to do the damage.  

Everyone in these pursuits wants to know the "best way" to get strong.  Everyone wants to know the "best way" to diet.  And the way these ideas are represented is as something you do "to yourself," or something you "put into yourself."  They encourage you to look mainly at the input. But that is the wrong focus.  To get ahead, you need to better understand the results; you need to place the majority of your focus on the output, not on the input.  Once you understand the results, you can create a plan of managing those results.  And that plan is most often a process of healing.

Results come not from what you are able to do, but rather from understanding just what it is you’ve just done – and how to take care of it.

Sorry guys.  You can talk all you want about what you can "do" – how big you lifted, how tight you got your abs, how amazing you performed – but the results come not from what you are able to do, but rather from understanding just what it is you've just done – and how to take care of it.

The topic was brought up by Will from the team The Beast recently in a question he posed to me:

 

"Being the best healer has had me fascinated since you put it up. How do we improve our ability to heal? My guess would be through a clean diet, plenty of sleep, a lot of water, and proper training. Am I anywhere near the mark on this one?"

 

My answer was more or less a repeat of the above point.  (Excuse a little reiteration here, but I really feel that this concept can not be stressed enough.)

 

As with all things (and you have to see this one coming), it starts with observation. As much observation as possible. In other words: confronting each question with some sort of research:
"What needs to be healed?"
"In what specific ways has my body been damaged?"
"W
hat are methods other people use?"

It frustrates me that so many bodybuilding and strength athletes just refuse to lay claim to the most essential component to the process: "the best bodybuilders are the best at healing themselves, not the best at damaging themselves."

Everyone is busy bragging about what they can do, But few are discussing how they take responsibility for what they have done.

 

Healing the body is no small idea.  There are endless combinations of a multitude of systems at play.  However, the good news is there are basics common to us all.  Thorough rest, nurturing food choices and preventive warm-ups and cool downs are what immediately comes to mind.

However, the single biggest obstacle to healing is – you guessed it – your mind.  More precisely: the will of your mind.  

You are "convinced" of many things in life.  And once you become convinced of a thing, well, it is rare that you will go in the opposite direction of your convictions.  However, it is very possible that we are sometimes convinced of things that work against our ability to achieve our goals, yet we are unaware of the conflict because we are "convinced" we are doing right.

Know what I mean?

And so many athletes are simply "convinced" that they need to train harder, lift more, and workout more frequently.  They believe deeply – to the very fabric of their being – that they must do more.  

And doing more means more damage to the body.  

And then, because you are so busy doing more, you don't have the proper time and resources to heal from all that additional damage.  

Yet without healing, you will remain small or weak or slow or fat – or any other quality that you are trying to overcome.  

So what do you do next?  You start looking for more to do.  You start asking for more; more training ideas, more diet strategies, more weight, more effort, more work – more, more and more!  Rather than look at what you have done and how you could be taking better responsibility for the damage, you instead are convinced that the problem is you need to do something else; something more.

And you get stuck in that spiral.

You see how conviction works against us?  We get convinced of one idea, and then by operating under that idea we get stuck in a loop.  Only by confronting that conviction – and often perhaps shattering it and rebuilding it – will the cycle end, and we will begin progressing once more.

Conviction is the culprit behind the majority of slow progressions.  Our stubborn, confident, certain minds with it's glorious, golden and pristine thoughts is actually working against what we need to grow: better healing.

(Notice how I said "better" healing.  Not "more" healing.)

 More observation, less conviction.

More observation, less conviction.

So, as I told will, the first step is observation.  Not hasty, broad observation.  Not "I'm-convinced-I-already-know-what's-there-so-I-can-skip-this-step" observation.  Careful, thorough inventory-style observation.

  • What damage has your training done to your muscle cells?
  • What damage has your training done to your joints; your tendons and other connectors?
  • What damage has your training done to your nervous system?
  • What damage has your training done to your motivation, your interest or your enthusiasm?
  • What damage has your training done to your schedule?
  • What damage has your has your training done?

There are countless other questions you can ask to prompt your observational inventorying.  And with each question you have the root of more questions; each question gets more and more specific.  

And this is where research begins.  The better the questions, the more specific your study, and true more precise your answers.  (Not to mention you get more of them – not all "more" efforts are bad ones.)

Before you go looking for more, look at what you got.  Before you go looking to do more, look at how you can take better responsibility for what you have done.  You will quickly discover that the one thing common to all the questions is some form of better healing, not better assaults of damage.  And that healing leads to better growth, more strength, and probably a damn happier person.

The best bodybuilders are the best healers.  They are not always the most skilled lifters.  They are not always the most scientific eaters.  They are simply the best at healing themselves, and thus getting ahead.

I have said it time and time again.  

You don't gotta jump overboard to plan on jumping in.

Look, I get it:
you gotta make money.

You gotta pay your bills support your kids, and you got a girlfriend you love to treat.  Or a boyfriend.  Or a car payment, or two cats, or a sick relative.  

You got things that demand you keep working to make money.  And rightfully you should.  The obligations we have in live are an extension of that which we love.

Right?

Or are they?

Well, while I do not think we should all quit our jobs to pursue our passions without having a game plan in tact, I do think we rarely bother with drawing out that game plan.  We talk about it in vagaries; we say "I wanna someday."  But we rarely make that someday today.

And I am just talking about the game plan.  No one here is suggesting you jump ship tomorrow, but I am asking: "Have you even looked over the railing to see how deep the water is?"

So many athletes look at competitors with awe and excitement.  Yet they describe their own aspirations as "far away" from where they are right now.  They gotta first do this, then gotta do that, then gotta and gotta and gotta.

Likewise, so many athletes who love, love love strength and physique sports don't dream big enough when it comes to their livelihood?  Who said you can't make profit off of being a great bodybuilder?  Who claims that obsessing over lifting techniques can never feed you?  All it takes is some careful planning to make what you love into a carter you adore.  And yet, so few of the men and women who are accomplished in athletics ever bother to draw up that plan - many in spite of being phenomenal planners with their athletics!

Then, like a ray of light, I saw something that offered a simple, tidy and clean way of describing this motivation.  It was a cartoon by Illustrated by Gavin Aung Than from ZenPencils.com.  

And cartoons are easy.  Easier than big life choices, anyway.  Which is why I liked it; it illustrates simply the concept of not getting bogged down in your "gotta's."   (Obviously. I also made sure the cartoon got posted over in the Almanac, because it's nice and wisdom-ey!) 

Stop waiting on the game plan.  No, you may not be able to change it all right away, but knowing WHAT will need to change and HOW it will happen is essential.  

Stop dreaming.  Start planning.

The conditions are perfect, right now; today.

You don't gotta jump overboard to figure out how to jump in.

Longevity practice leads to more gains.

With only three events out of five under his belt, it is still too early for Tom Keon to get cocky about winning the contest.  But it's hard not to be optimistic because, as of the time of this posting, Tom Keon (Wolfpack, Advancement '13) is currently in first at the Hudson Valley Showdown II StrongMan Contest.

This could lead to Tom's first-ever strength contest first place!

Say many things about me, but "cocky" will never be one of them.

Two years ago, Tom was struggling to lap a 200 lb. stone, and his pushpress was . . . how shall I put it?  Not impressive.  Now he is already becoming a leader in a single novice contest.  His secret?  Diligence and persistence and an ego which is always kept squarely in check.  Humility and focus are his weapons, and it has propelled him from "the skinny guy who lifts" to the Red Bull who dominates.  

No longer "the skinny guy who looks like he lifts a little."

As his coach, it makes me super proud to see what longevity in the sport can bring to even the most unlilkely guys.  Longevity has been a hallmark of my coaching for years; I believe that keeping an athlete focused on what can elongate their lifting career – even if it is sometimes "boring" or slow-moving – can produce far greater gains in the long run than will just trying to dominate the field right out of the gate.  Seeing Tom espouse graduated practices has begun paying off for him.  

I'll be sure to post his final results soon, but in the meantime I couldn't help but share some pride.  

KEEP AT IT, RED BULL!